Here’s a hypothetical for you to consider. How would Irish voters react if the government announced that National Lottery winnings were to be subject to income tax? I have a suspicion that people would be outraged. Never mind the fact that Irish voters constantly tell pollsters that “the rich” should pay higher taxes or that they’d happily pay higher taxes for better public services. If you won €500k on the Lotto and the government announced they were taking half of it, I suspect most Irish people would have their noses seriously put out of joint. Despite the fact that it is effectively free money and they’re getting to keep a quarter of a million.
There’d be all sorts of excuses as to why Lotto winners should be exempt. That they had “invested” thousands already in unsuccessful tickets. That the multinationals don’t pay their fair share of taxes. The banks. Yeah, those two words are now an excuse for anything you don’t like. Or that isn’t it unfair that some poor creature finally gets a break and now the government is piling in on him. In short, the Irish don’t like tax more than they don’t like cuts in public services.
Yet, through this, one of the most boring and curiously distant election campaigns in recent history, that real division in Irish society has barely been touched. With the possible exception of Lucinda Creighton, hardly anyone has stood up and openly defended a view held, quietly, by a huge section of the Irish people. Stuff your public services. You’ll only give my money to pay LUAS drivers more than I earn. I want to keep my own money.
The real issue in this election is, as ever, about tax. Income tax, property tax, USC, water tax. With the exception of the Social Democrats, who are getting margin of error ratings for their troubles, hardly any candidates want to defend the concept of higher taxes paid by you for better services. The alphabet left and Fianna Fail point to those living breathing crocks o’ gold, the wealthy, as the perennial source of finance for all our public service goodies. But hardly anybody will knock on the door and tell you openly that they will tax you whatever it takes to bring people poorer than you up to your level.
Put the people who just want to keep their own money, the people who say they can’t afford to pay any more tax, and the people who say that the government will just squander it and you probably have a majority of the Irish electorate. The next Dail will have a majority, regardless of who is in government, of deputies who will resist any attempt to openly (stealth taxes are different) increase taxes on the great majority of Irish people.
Yet hardly anybody wants to debate the link between taxes and public services. Nobody ever challenges members of the public on TV debate shows or Joe Duffy about why they should get more of someone else’s earnings. It’s that wonderfully Irish ability to hold conflicting views at the same time, and never be challenged on it, and it’s not doing our society a service in ignoring it.
This election campaign would have been better served if non-party people had openly debated the future of Irish society, acting as de facto proxies for our wobbling jelly politicians who won’t say boo to a goose because they reckon the goose might give them a 6th preference. A debate between, say, Fintan O’Toole and our own Cormac Lucey would be a far more engaging and honest discussion about where we would like to go as a country than what is passing for debate between the parties.
The big invisible pachyderm at the heart of Irish politics is a pretence that there is some perfect political G spot where you can get all the public services you want for buttons in taxes. Every opposition claims it, every government fails to find it, rinse and repeat. It’s nonsense, and dishonest nonsense at that.
But instead of admitting that politics is about choices, we have a parade of politicians listing out vast sums of other people’s money which always exceeds even the piddling extra taxes or savings they will admit to supporting. At the moment, our politicians would be doing less harm if they were actually handing out cash for votes rather than making promises that involve huge public sector expansion. Irish politics would be better served if they could offer us money on the doorsteps in return for the promise of a vote.
At least then, come the day of the count, it would be the politicians who’d be storming around the count centre in a temper because they’d been lied to. “I was promised thousands of votes on the doorsteps! I gave away thousands of euro! I can’t believe the voters lied to me, I mean, what sort of lying, dishonest…” They’d stop spending money on posters and leaflets and instead every election campaign would involve the candidates and a van from Securicor going from door to door haggling like Tunisian carpet salesmen. You’d certainly make sure that you were in to meet them. Indeed, you’d probably make an appointment. In the Philippines some candidates for office are known for giving out a left shoe to voters, with the promise that the voter will get the right shoe if the candidate is elected. I could easily see a candidate working his way down a street in Ranelagh or Donnybrook with a selection of Jimmy Choos.
Wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen.